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Epistemology

Epistemology refers to the branch of philosophy that deals with knowledge, including the methods, natures, validity, and limitations of knowledge and belief. James Frederick Ferrier first introduced the word epistemology in the 1800s, deriving it from the Greek word episteme, meaning knowledge, and the Greek word logos, meaning explanation. As the study of knowledge or justified belief, epistemology involves the following questions:

  • What are the necessary and sufficient conditions of knowledge?
  • What are its limits, and what is its structure?
  • What are its sources?
  • What makes justified beliefs justified?
  • How we are to understand the concept of justification?
  • Is justification external or internal to one's own mind?

In a broader sense, epistemology deals with issues about the formation and dissemination of knowledge in specific areas of inquiry. A great deal of the debate in the field of epistemology focuses on examining the nature of knowledge and its relationship to related notions such as belief, truth and justification. Epistemology also deals with the methods of producing knowledge, and skepticism about various knowledge claims.

Philosophers distinguish between practical reason (knowing how) and theoretical reason (knowing that). Epistemology mainly concerns the latter. Many languages have different words for these two different types of knowledge, but not English.

Most epistemologists accept Plato's definition of knowledge as justified true belief. While a person can mistakenly believe something untrue, a person cannot consciously know something without believing it. While most philosophers can agree on the basic distinction between knowledge, belief, justification, and truth, these philosophers often argue about what constitutes justification, and thus what one needs to know the truth of something rather than just believe in it.

The regress problem confounds many people. The regress problem refers to the fact that, if each justification requires a justification, then that leads to an infinite regress of justifications. The skeptic uses this to argue that nobody can fully justify anything, and nobody can know anything.

Most epistemological philosophies or theories attempt to offer a theory of knowledge that defeats skepticism and/or explain away other problems in epistemology. Some of these includes contextualism, fallibilism, constructivism, rationalism, foundherentism, coherentism, foundationalism, and infinitism.

Of course, some people may believe in nihilism, which says that no truths exists at all.

Besides academics, many people use the study of epistemology for more practical reasons. Most notably, issues of law rely heavily on epistemology when it comes to proving guilt or innocence of an accused person, as well as finding out criminal intent by ascertaining whether the person knew a certain fact before committing a certain deed.

Other common applications of epistemology include:

  • History and archaeology
  • Mathematics and science
  • Medicine (diagnosis of disease)
  • Religion and Apologetics
  • Intelligence (information) gathering
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Cognitive Science
  • Psychology
  • Literature
  • Linguistics
  • Knowledge Management
  • Testimony

We hope this article answered all of your questions about epistemology. If you have any remaining questions, or if you have any comments or suggestions, please post them in our Philosophy Forums.